Saturday, 1 June 2013

The UltraSubMarine Awards

So the inaugural season of the UltraSubMarines blog is over and we have celebrated some notable achievements.  The Tigers became English Champions for a record extending 10th time, Champ10ns as the branding has it, we also beat the Maori on a raucous night at Welford Road in November, their first loss for 5 years, and made our Wembley debut in September with a "thrilling" 9-all draw against Saracens. 

The players have been positively overburdened by garlands this season as Tom Youngs won Aviva Premiership Player of the season, Dan Bowden won try, and a whopping 8 players made the TalksSport Dream XV.  But I know what you are all really wondering.  Who does Leicester Tigers' premium reporter think is Player of the Season?  And if Martin Crowson isn't available what about you?

So here it goes my take on the Awards Season:

Signing of the Season:

We have a veritable smorgasbord to choose from after signing at least 11 players over the summer and during the season.  It might be Dan Bowden or Adam Thompstone, what about Flying Fijian winger Vereniki Goneva or Miles Benjamin?  Alright probably not Miles Benjamin.
In reality there seem to be two candidates: Goneva and Thompstone.  Goneva signed from Pyrenees side Tarbes and has 29 caps for his native Fiji.  Thompstone came from London Irish after missing the best part of 2 seasons with a broken ankle.  Goneva bookended the season with tries on the opening day at London Welsh and in the final against Northampton, making 15 starts, whilst Thompstone played the middle part of the season with 20 starts scoring 9 tries.  Between them they locked down the left wing spot playing 33 of 36 games, Niall Morris preferred for one league game and Alex Lewington playing 2 LV Cup games. 

So who is my signing of the season?  I can’t deny it I’m in love with Vereniki Goneva.  Typically Fijian in attack with his hard running, free passing style he marries this with a vociferous work rate in defence and moments of game breaking skill such as against the Ospreys at home for the first try and a similar inside break for Morris’s try in the Final.

Try of the Season:

Tigers are a team of both great try scorers and scorers of great tries.  91 tries in 36 games this season means there are plenty to choose from and it is impossible for even the most ardent of Tigers fan to recall them all.  But some stand out in the memory and will stand the test of time.  Who will ever forget Ed Slater dummying and charging his way over from the half way line, out pacing an England age group winger in the process?  Kitchener ghosting his way past the Saints defence and into the corner during the final.  Ben Youngs’s 80m tap and go at the Rec.  The Premiership panel considered Dan Bowden’s touch down of George Ford’s chip after Ford’s break the best but we have the freedom of Europe to pick from and it is there where I find my favourite.

Treviso in December.  It was bitterly cold and wet.  A boggy pitch was making it tough going against a sturdy and determined opposition.  We were perhaps not agreeing with every call from the referee, though worse from him was to come, but he gave us a penalty practically on our own goal line.  Seeing the play bunched in front of him Youngs went quickly sprinting out of the 22 in a wide arc.  Anthony Allen straightened and put the charging Mat Tait into space and into the Italians half before getting it back from Tait’s out the back of the hand off load.  Allen then linked play to the left wing Adam Thompstone who raced home into the corner.

In the end that try won us the game, saving our face from an embarrassing defeat in Italy and helped us to win the group and make the European quarter finals.

Game of the Season: 

 It’s so tempting to pick the final.  A 20 point thrashing against your local rivals in the final, how couldn’t that be the game of the season?  But there have been so many others it would surely betray a lack of imagination to just pick the last one? 

Some of the other performances have been magnificent.  Ospreys at home in October with its crazy frantic last ten minutes that sealed the bonus point and ultimately the group; the Maori in November when denuded of our internationals we took on the famous New Zealand tourists and sent them home with their first loss in 5 years; the Saints in Northampton during March and Quins in the semi final too, the form we exhibited after the 6 Nations when we finally had our full squad back was sublime and the I’ve rarely seen a team so dominant as those two games. 

But bringing the A game when it matters hasn’t always been a strength of the Tigers.  And it mattered last Saturday more than it ever has done before.

Academy Player of the Season:

To be eligible for this award you must have played some part in the Under 18s Academy League. 

The Academy had a fantastic season winning the inaugural Academy League Northern Conference with a 100% record of 6 Bonus Point wins out of 6.  They also had 12 players represent their nation at various levels from U-17s to U-20s spread across 4 countries with England, Wales, Italy and Canada all requiring a Tiger at one stage or another.  

The academy seems packed with potential at the moment with guys like Harry Thacker, Ed Milne, Javiah Pohe and Rhys Williams impressing.  However the winner of this award has also been able to make his mark at a higher level.  Since his summer signing from Wasps Henry Purdy has had a dream season, top try scorer in the autumn’s A League, making his full Tigers debut in November’s LV Cup encounter with Saracens, helping England to win the U-20s Six Nations and currently in France representing the Under 20s in the Junior World Cup. 

With Goneva, Thompstone, Morris, Benjamin and Camacho ahead of him it’s going to be hard work to break into the Tigers line up but this young man should back himself to achieve that goal.

Young Player of the Season (U 23):

The definition of a Young Player is one born after 1st September 1989 and is defined as Under 23.

It’s fair to say Tigers have some outstanding options in the category.  But we’ll come to those later.  Even amongst the players we still consider youngsters we have the departing George Ford, Sam Harrison now a veteran of 49 first team appearances and the emerging talent of Fraser Balmain.

But let’s not get like the rest of the British rugby press and celebrate new rather than great.  The others who qualify for this category are Graham Kitchener, England tourist and final try scorer, Steve Mafi, Tongan international almost the equal of Tom Croft, Manu Tuilagi, Lion, Beast, brilliant and Ben Youngs his fellow Lions tourist.

A handy quartet and one that it is a hell of a job to separate.   Steve Mafi had a year scarred with injury after tearing his hamstring against Toulouse in January so misses out; Kitchener had 21 starts as he blossomed into a first team regular but is not a dominant player internationally like Youngs and Manu.

The two Lions are impossible to split; Manu raises his game v Ospreys, Youngs calls with his try v. Bath.  Colleagues with England and now the Lions in the poker game of life they are a competing pair of Royal Flushes.

Are joint winners a cop out? You separate them!

Player of the Season:

For the Tigers collectively this has been a fantastic year but on an individual level it for many it has been simply amazing.  Jordan Crane, Tom Croft and Mat Tait have all returned to regular rugby from career threatening injuries and were like three new world class signings such was there impact. 

Croft has also made the Lions tour alongside 5 of his colleagues as Ben Youngs, Tom Youngs, Dan Cole, Geoff Parling and Manu Tuilagi all gain the highest representative honour available.  Steve Mafi was part of the Tongan squad that won away in Scotland, whilst Martin Castrogiovanni’s Italy defeated both France and Ireland in the Six Nations.  Scores of players made their Tigers debut, who knows which of the youngsters we will be talking about in years to come? 

But the story has to be Tom Youngs.

This time last year he hadn't even started a Premiership game in the front row, now he is in Hong Kong with the British Lions preparing for the quadrennial assault on the southern hemisphere super powers.  The legend has it that Heyneke Meyer suggested the switch after a sin binning for fighting with a prop in the second team.  Whatever the truth of it the unusual conversion has worked a treat.

He’s had to deal with learning a new and sometimes baffling position and had to deal with taking a massive step backwards to ultimately emerge in a rarefied company he probably would never have reached at centre. 

This season Youngs started in all but two games for which he was available, playing 22 games.  He also made 9 appearances for England including the famous 38-21 win over the All Blacks in which he was at his bullocking best.   

Tom Youngs the Leicester Tigers Ultra SubMarines Player of the Season.

Read my view on Youngs just before his international debut in November

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